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Christmas Shopping '96 What's in Store

by Denise Silvester-Carr Contributor Illustrated London News and broadcaster

Charles Dickens was instrumental in the Victorian revival of the Christmas festival. He wrote about it in his famous novel "A Christmas Carol", a story so popular that it was dramatised, and Dickens himself re-enacted it many times on lecture tours of Britain and America.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the author who epitomized our cheerful illusion of the festive season when he described "the brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries cracked in the lamp head of the windows" is remembered among the varied gifts on offer throughout Britain.

Past Times, a shop with more than 50 branches in Britain, specialises in marketing products with historical themes. This year it is selling a compact disc entitled "Christmas with Dickens". The carols, dance tunes and parlour ballads are drawn from references in the novels and played on traditional instruments. The hour-long disc retails at 9.95, the cassette version is 5.95.

Past Times also sells jewellery, ornaments and cutlery such as a pair of elegant silver spoons for serving cranberry sauce and Stilton in style (19.95 the pair). The shop also features attractive fashionwear. Among the selection of wool knitwear are: a cardigan featuring Celtic designs (65.00); a jumper showing Nonsuch Palace - the Tudor extravaganza built by Henry VIII (49.50); and a tunic jumper based on a William Morris design (65.00).

A flattering Regency embroidered waistcoat (39.00), an empire-line pure cotton night-set that could have been made for a Jane Austen heroine, and silk ties with Persian, Mesopotamian and Edwardian motifs, (19.95 to 22.50) may well resolve the problem of what to give a loved one. Past Times runs an extensive mail order department and goods chosen from the colourful catalogue can be despatched worldwide.

The Museum Store in London's Covent Garden also markets gifts with historic themes. The shoe bags, for instance, feature prints of period footwear from the British Library (4.95) and the laundry bags (10.95) are printed with Victorian buckets and pails.

Parchment Lampshades
Ancient legal documents belonging to the Law Society have been reproduced on parchment lampshades (59.95) and Shakespearean quotations appear in hand-printed gold on black velvet cushions (34.95) produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). The RSC range at the Museum Store includes a hand-crafted ebonized plaster bust of Shakespeare (225) and a fetching apron with some of the Bard's gastronomical quotation (19.99).

The National Trust, as Britain's biggest private landowner, conserves countryside and coastline. As no self-respecting country-lover's wardrobe is complete without Wellington boots, the National Trust has come up with a solution for storing muddy footwear. Its Christmas gift catalogue has a neat hand-crafted softwood Wellington boot rack that will hold four pairs (26.95).

Gold taper candles (2.99 a pair) blend well with a Christmas rose tablecloth in gold, green, red and white (22.95). This pretty cloth, with six matching napkins (14.50), should enhance any dinner table during the festive season.

The most handsome gift in the National Trust's range is the exclusive hand-blown, glass bowl with a sand-blasted acorn design by Simon Whistler, who is following in the footsteps of his father Laurence, one of the country's best-known glass engravers.

Limited Edition
This bowl, in a limited edition of 500, retails at 65.00. It may be wiser to order it for personal collection from one of the National Trust's shops at properties around the country or from its attractive store at 1 St Christopher's Place, Oxford Street, London.

Parterre, the new range of toiletries exclusive to the National Trust, is made by that most British of perfumers, Floris of Jermyn Street. This company, founded in 1730, has its own new fragrance this year, the aroma of the gardenia. Perfume (33.50 for 15 ml), bath essence, soap (13.95 for 3 x 150 g) and talcum powder are available.

A tartan theme will welcome visitors to Floris this Christmas, and the tartan Christmas crackers (8.95) contain hats, novelties and 25 ml of toilet water.

Gift Set
Next door at 88 Jermyn Street, James Bodenham & Company, a division of Floris, has a range of natural oil and fruit toiletries. The bath-time gift set is 6.95; the bath and body collection - three 200 ml bottles filled with bath gel, bath oil or hand and body lotion - is 10.95 and available in five combinations.

Halcyon Days, one of the few firms in the country to hold all four royal warrants, revived the art of 18th century enamelling in the early 1970s and many of the objets d'art in its delightful Brook Street shop resemble bibelots made at Bilston and Battersea long ago. Besides its annual Christmas box (72.00), which is inscribed with "Happy Christmas" in 11 languages, it has a limited edition of colourful, hand-painted boxes celebrating the 3,000th anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem (145), and a magnificent eight-day carriage clock with enamel panels (660).

The design, showing exotic birds, was inspired by a 200-year-old gold box in the Wallace Collection in London. To commemorate the William Morris centenary, it has produced, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, an enamel box decorated with Pre-Raphaelite angels (120).

Treasure House
Hamleys proclaims itself "the finest toyshop in the world" and there is every reason to agree. More than 35,000 different toys and games are packed onto seven floors in this Regent Street treasure house. Fathers get as much fun as their offspring playing trains and the Homby Intercity 225 electric locomotive comes with two open standard carriages, a driving van trailer, the track and necessary transformer and power clips. Priced at 99.99, this is one of many exciting Homby products.

For the girls, Hamleys has sturdy dolls' houses kits by Guymer Design Ltd., of Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, which it recommends an adult assembles. The two-storey Willow Cottage is 39.99 and the three-storey Grosvenor, with bay windows on the ground floor, is 74.99. The world-renowned toy soldiers made in Nottingham by Britains are also there. A box of four finely modelled Life Guards mounted on gleaming black horses costs 44.99 and foot regiments such as the Royal Engineers or the 2nd Gurkha Rifles are the same price for a set of six. A catalogue showing the complete range of models and stockists is available from the manufacturers.

William Fortnum took advantage of his royal contacts when he and his partner Hugh Mason began trading in 1707. He had been a footman at St James's Palace and his new grocery store was patronised by Queen Anne, the first of 12 British sovereigns to so do.

Today the company's vans deliver to Buckingham Palace. They also despatch luxury goods around the world, and many of the Fortnum & Mason Christmas hampers contain a traditional Christmas pudding every bit as good as the one Dickens's Mrs Cratchit carried in "blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top". As well as the pudding, the Roxburgh hamper (250) contains Stilton, patum peperium gentlemen's relish, a Christmas cake and other mouth-watering delicacies, all of which come in a wicker basket.

Tempting Eggs
The Cambridge hamper (100) has tempting pickled quails' eggs, cream of asparagus soup, creamed smoked salmon, chutney, preserves and shortbread petticoat tails. Details of the hampers and fine china, leather and glass goods can be found in the Christmas catalogue (3.00, plus post and packing).

Harrods, too, began life as a grocery store and like Fortnum & Mason has also expanded greatly since 1849 but the Food Halls retain their Edwardian splendour. Their equally famous hampers contain tempting trifles such as clotted cream fudge, cherry conserve, chutney and many delicious own-label products. The selection is wide and prices, in the main, range from 50 to 500.

Harrods, of course, is a store of wonder and among the novelty gifts is a cashmere chess set - a Loro piana wrap which can be worn or played on. The centre check pattern is edged with an elaborate hunting scene. The wrap comes in a perfumed wooden box, complete with chess pieces carved from mahogany and ash (2,499).

The famous annual teddy bear comes in several sizes and costs from 19.95 for the 13 inch (33 cm) one to 995 for the 5 ft (154 cm) bear. Other gifts for the person who has everything include an 18-carat gold golf putter (9,995) and 4.5 ft (137 cm) beeswax candle that will burn continually for eight months (3,595).

And should you need to augment the Dickensian ditties on the CD, the Knightsbridge piano should set the party mood. This hand-built Broadwood finished in a choice of ebony, walnut or mahogany, is emblazoned on the inside lid with the Harrods coat of arms (39,999). With this gift to hand, you will almost certainly echo Scrooge on Christmas morning and exclaim "Oh, glorious! Glorious! Christmas Day!"

If you are interested in mail order shopping, you will no doubt find the following addresses and numbers helpful:

Past Times
Witney, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, 0X8 6BH
Tel: +44 1993 770 440 (for free catalogue, credit card or debit orders, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week). Fax: +44 1993 770 477

The Museum Store
37 The Market, Covent Garden, London, United Kingdom, WC2E 8RF
Tel/Fax: +44 171 240 5760

The National Trust (Enterprises) Ltd.
P.O. Box 101, Melksham, Wiltshire, United Kingdom, 5N12 8EA
Tel: +44 117 988 4747 (24 hour credit card mail order. Fax: +44 1225 790960. Tel: +44 1225 790800 (customer enquiries)

J. Floris Ltd., 89 Jermyn Street, London, United Kingdom, SW1Y 6JH
Tel: +44 171 930 2885. Fax: +44 171 930 1402

James Bodenham & Company
88 Jermyn Street, London, United Kingdom, SW1Y 6JH
Tel: + 44 171 930 2885/Fax: +44 171 930 1402

Halcyon Days
14 Brook Street, London, United Kingdom, W1y 1AA
Tel: +44 171 6298811/ Fax: +44 171 409 0280

188-196 Regent Street, London, United Kingdom, WiR 6BT. Tel: +44 171 734 3161/ Fax: +44 171 494 5859

William Britain Collection
Britains Petite Ltd., Chelsea Street, New Basford, Nottingham, NG7 7HR
Tel: +44 115 942 0777/ Fax: +44 115 942 0250

Fortnum &Mason plc.
181 Piccadilly, London, UnitedKingdom, W1A lER
Tel: +44 171 465 86666/ Fax: +44 171 3278. Customer enquiries tel: +44 171 465 8668

83-135 Brompton Road, London, United Kingdom, SW1X 7XL
Tel: +44 181 730 1234/Fax: + 44 171 225 5830 (credit card orders)      Copyright ©1999, LLC